After 20 tries, Nieporte in first U.S. Open
Since turning professional in 1993, PGA Professional John Nieporte has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open 20 times. In those attempts, the first 19 in a row were unsuccessful. At age 46, Nieporte finally punched his U.S. Open ticket in incredible fashion.
Since becoming a professional golfer in 1993, 46-year-old John Nieporte has tried 20 times to qualify for the U.S. Open.
In 19 consecutive tries, a trip to the national championship remained a dream unrealized -- until last Tuesday.
In his 20th attempt, Nieporte finally leaped over that final hurdle in the sectional qualifier at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club, when he birdied the third hole of a playoff with 15-year-old David Snyder of McAllen, Texas, to punch the third and final ticket from the Bradenton, Fla. qualifier to Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. this week.
"It's like my father-in-law always tells me," Nieporte said, "you never do anything the easy way."
Nieporte, the PGA Head Professional at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be the only PGA Professional teeing it up in the 113th U.S. Open.
What Nieporte did to qualify is nothing short of amazing. The Monday before U.S. Open week, known as, "Golf's Longest Day," is a 36-hole qualifier at various sites throughout the country with very limited spots available.
Nieporte played 38 holes that day -- the 36 for the qualifier and two holes of a playoff with Snyder, before electing to stop playing Monday evening due to darkness and return the next morning with that coveted U.S. Open berth hanging in the balance.
"It was tough," Nieporte said about the decision to return Tuesday morning. "It can be agony if you dwell on it. A good friend caddied for me and was a calming influence. We talked about our jobs – we both work at Trump International – and things we’d like to do differently next year. I slept about 3 hours on Monday night. I stayed in the moment. I never consciously admitted to myself what I was doing."
What he'd already done was, well, remarkable.
On the second nine of his second round on Monday, Nieporte caught fire beginning on No. 2 -- his 11th hole of the round and 29th hole of the day.
"I had been 3 under through four holes, but had a couple of hiccups," Nieporte said. "When I made the turn, I knew I'd have to make a move because that was the scoring nine. Of course, you never really plan for the stretch that I ended up having."
That stretch went like this: Birdie on No. 2; hole-in-one on No. 3 (Nieporte's ninth career ace and eighth in competition); birdie on No. 4; par on No. 5; and birdie on No. 6.
"I've been hitting my irons real well," Nieporte said. "On the second hole -- my 11th hole -- it was a good birdie. Then I hit a 7-iron 4 inches left of the cup and it went in for an ace at No 3. On No. 4, I made a 40-footer for birdie. The funny thing is I hit a great iron shot to five feet at No. 5 to set up a pretty easy birdie putt. I missed the thing because I tried to jam it in there. But I bounced back with another birdie on the next hole, a par 5."
When the 36 holes were over, Nieporte was battling with Snyder for that third and final available spot at Merion. Amateur Kevin Phelan of Ireland and John Hahn Jr., of Hudson, Ohio, had already secured the first two spots.
Nieporte and Snyder each parred the first two holes of the playoff -- Nos. 18 and 10 -- before darkness halted play for the evening.
The next morning, the two returned to play the 17th hole. Nieporte ended things swiftly by holing a 15-foot birdie putt and -- suddenly, after two decades of trying -- he realized a dream.
Imagine, 20 years of trying to accomplish a monumental goal and a teenager was the one standing in the way. Older, wiser, whatever – Nieporte, for one, certainly didn't underestimate his opponent.
"Being a teaching pro, I know the game has changed in the last 15 years," he said. "David was totally composed. He stayed focused and stuck to his routine. Every sport has changed. It's a shame to a point because they're not really kids anymore, but that's the way it is. It seems every parent wants their kid to be the next Tiger Woods.
"It was fun though," Nieporte added. "My emotions were in check throughout the qualifier. I've been through so many over the years. You try to downplay it. You don't focus on what you're trying to achieve. I got emotional after I did it, because I was thinking about the history. It's the U.S. Open and it's at Merion for the first time since 1981 and Merion's history it was overwhelming."
The "Nieporte" history in the U.S. Open is pretty neat too.
John Nieporte is the son of Tom Nieporte, the former longtime PGA Head Professional at famed Winged Foot Country Club. The elder Nieporte competed in 13 U.S. Opens, the highlight of which was a tie for 17th in 1958 at Southern Hills. Tom Nieporte also spent several years on the PGA Tour, where he counted Julius Boros and Billy Casper as two of his closest friends.
"When you follow in your father's footsteps, it makes this even more special," John Nieporte said. "He played at such a high level. To experience a glimpse of that is something else. He was great friends with Billy Casper, Julius Boros and others. I wasn't even born yet when they were truly in their heyday, but when the Senior Tour started, my parents would have parties at our house with those guys when the tournaments were in town. It was a lot of fun to listen to their stories."
Now, no matter what happens at Merion, the younger Nieporte will have fun stories of his own to share for years to come. His brother, wife and four daughters will be among those following his every step at Merion. He's also got the support of his world-famous boss -- Mr. Donald Trump...
...And that's another story.
"I played mini tours, got married, had a baby, quit golf all together and then got pulled back into it by a friend as a teaching pro at North Hills Country Club in New York,” Nieporte explained. “I won the New York State Open at Bethpage Black and that got a lot of attention in the newspapers. At the time, I was caddying for Mr. Trump at Trump National. Circumstances had it that Mr. Trump was looking for a teaching pro. I caddied, he played 9 holes well, and I was hired as a teaching pro under Lee Rinker on the spot. That's when I got in the PGA Program and did that for four years. Then the head job opened at Trump International in West Palm Beach. After a grueling interview, Mr. Trump gave me the job before I was even a full-fledged PGA member; but I was still in the program. It was difficult doing both my job and the program simultaneously, but I'm glad I did it."
After six years of working toward earning his certifications, Nieporte officially became a PGA member in 2012.
"It's great to know Mr. Trump," Nieporte said. "His respect for the game runs deep. He always says golf parallels life. He's a great putter too. He rolls it in from everywhere and I've never even seen him practice putting. I'd put him against Tiger Woods with a 10-foot putt, that's how good he is. He loves golf, as evidenced by all the courses he's acquiring. He loves looking at holes and asking, 'what can we do to make it better?' Add tees, a bunker? I saw him add a waterfall in three days at one course and then remove it in three days because he thought it looked ridiculous! He's a competitor on the course, in business and in life. It's fun to play with him. Those are all the qualities the guys I'm playing with at Merion this week possess, so I don't think I'll be intimidated. I'm going to enjoy it.”
Nieporte is savoring his week at Merion already. He spoke to PGA.com early Monday morning and had already played 18 holes on Sunday.
Nieporte’s Sunday tee time was at 2:30 p.m., which meant he was the last player to leave the course -- as darkness set in, naturally.